a long talk

Alex Borstein Became The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Very Own Godfather

“I had a hard time wrapping my head around a successful Susie and what that means.”

“So much of who she is relates to hunger and drive. If you succeed, does that dry up? Who are you at that point?” Photo: Philippe Antonello/Prime Video
“So much of who she is relates to hunger and drive. If you succeed, does that dry up? Who are you at that point?” Photo: Philippe Antonello/Prime Video

Thanks to the power of flash-forwards, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel viewers have been aware that Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) was able to launch herself into the firmament of comedy legends. The better question that came from this knowledge was, what about Susie? This week’s “The Testi-Roastial” gives us our answer with the pomp she negotiated for herself all the way in 1990: Susie has become one of the most consummate and feared dealmakers in the business, her Rolodex filled with so much A-list talent that it could pack her former Gaslight Café stomping grounds to the brim. “This is the only business,” she says from the podium, “that would ever put up with a bitch like me.” (No, really. Susie once called Tom Cruise “unfuckably short.”) But her client list no longer includes her first one. A separate flash-forward confirms that she and Midge are estranged in the mid-’80s, thanks to Joel getting arrested for his mob entanglements — mob relations that have circled Susie since the series began

Alex Borstein has won two Emmys for her portrayal of Susie Myerson, with the character spending most of the show’s final season clawing her way up to managerial glory. Susie’s success is still a bit bewildering for Borstein to process, as is how her leather-and-lace relationship with Midge collapsed after nearly three decades. She’s optimistic, though, that the duo will reconcile. Hell, that’s what Maisel was built for. “It’s so rare to have a show with this many female characters on it who are worth fucking talking about and watching. It’s so rare, and I hope that it’s in some way altered the TV landscape for years to come,” she told Vulture. “I’ve never seen a collection of so many interesting, cool, watchable, likable, and vulnerable characters who are women before in my life.”

You’ve been playing Susie for five seasons now. Did any of the “testi-roastial” anecdotes—
I just call it the Testicle Roast.

Did they help recontextualize her or give you a new perspective on her life?
I’ll be honest with you, when I got the episode script, I was completely confused. It was so jarring. You fill in all these blanks when you’re playing a part. I never sat down with the writers. I never asked for any kind of a map. I figured the less I know the better. So every time something like this gets set in front of you, it’s a shock. “Oh, really, that? Oh, she’s this?” So it felt slightly like an assault. It’s so much at once and it spans so many different periods. It’s challenging to try to embody that same person throughout their lifetime. You move differently. You hold your body differently, based on age. Plus success — the less desperate you are, or at least for Susie, the less she paces and the more she relaxes a tiny bit. Her shoulders go down. That was so hard to keep track of with all of the time jumping.

What else was jarring for you?
Just having to consider the fact that Susie was going to age and, at some point, be a slightly different person. On Family Guy, when you play a cartoon character, you don’t change. Your clothing stays the same. You’re in the exact same outfit for 25 years. In a way, it’s a luxury. In a way, you feel trapped. But with Susie, I didn’t wrap my head around the fact that she’s going to age and she’s going to change. Everything that I had been bringing to life so far, from season one to four, was temporary. It was ephemeral. And to accept that and realize how human she is and how mortal she is, that was jarring.

Did Susie’s life evolve as you expected it to?
It wasn’t what I expected, which I think is how life works, right? You never end up exactly how you imagine you’re going to turn out as a child. This is certainly how I am and where I am, but it’s not what I envisioned in any way. So of course that would follow suit for Susie.

I had a hard time wrapping my head around a successful Susie and what that means for her. If this person is able to finally relax, who is she? So much of who she is relates to hunger and drive. If you succeed, does that dry up? Who are you at that point? It was interesting to see her become almost Godfather-like. She runs the room instead of scurrying into the room trying to get an ear for who runs it. She’s owning the room at this point. That was really interesting to have to tilt that way and become that person.

I think “testi-roastial” is the perfect embodiment of what Susie became: She can still take a pointed joke, but doesn’t mind basking in the glory of her achievements.
It’s cool. Susie was a type of woman you didn’t see a lot in the 1950s, and it’s because she just didn’t care how people saw her and what people thought about her. That holds and remains true. You get to the testi-roastial and she has continued to not give a shit, and push, and push, and push, and do things on her own terms. That was the through line for me, to be able to consistently play that same character throughout the ages. That’s the one thing that didn’t change.

We see Susie begin to dress for the appearance of success. Is putting her hair out of a ponytail a symbolic change for her?
Yeah, absolutely. Everything is deliberate when it comes to Maisel. Amy Sherman-Palladino wanted the hair to come down, literally and figuratively. Much of the beginning of Susie, she was in a leather jacket and a hat and boots, belt and suspenders — really cautious. Then she moved into a vest and she wanted to be in armor. She was protected and covered and felt strong. And as she achieves more success, she lets go of the suspenders, she lets go of the vests, and she lets go of the belt. She’s starting to wear elastic and is much more comfortable in her own skin. She’s not afraid to relax a bit.

After the ceremony, something that the roasters debate among themselves is if Susie had legitimate camaraderie with people or if she was always working an angle. What’s your take on that?
If she had dirt on people and if she used stuff to get what she needed, it doesn’t matter. It’s the same result. Ultimately, her ideas were good and her eye for talent was impeccable, and that’s what mattered. That’s how she got somebody on certain shows or how she got somebody a certain movie deal. So, in my opinion, it’s a moot point. Not that the end justifies the means, but all those means were what was necessary to do right by the client she was trying to do right by. It’s what she did with Midge too. I mean, she wanted to turn a blind eye to whatever it took to get Midge what she felt she deserved. In her mind, there’s nothing wrong or nefarious about it.

Susie in two different decades, as seen in the flash-forwards. Philippe Antonello/Prime Video.
Susie in two different decades, as seen in the flash-forwards. Philippe Antonello/Prime Video.

Let’s dive into the duo’s synagogue fight, which we know caused a separation that lasted at least several years. Did you always get the sense that Midge and Susie would reach a major breaking point, and was this how you envisioned it?
That was a really hard scene to shoot. Rachel and I both felt so discombobulated to have this massive break-up happen out of turn. We were doing everything out of order this season, and to have to jump in and have this fight — that’s the only time I knew what Amy really had in store for us. I knew Susie was barreling towards disaster with having taken all of these favors from these guys who are connected with or shouldered under the wings of the mafia. Something bad was coming. I didn’t know how it was going to be presented. I didn’t know that Joel was going to end up taking the fall. To have to shoot that scene in the middle of the season, and then go back hours later and be shooting another scene that’s in a totally different time period and where my character doesn’t know what’s coming up, it was really tough for me to bounce around like that. But anything in the ’80s is tough just because of the fucking shoulder pads. Let’s be honest.

Looking at Rachel in the ’80s was so disturbing. Growing up in an ’80s temple, it just brought back so many bar and bat mitzvah memories. It was hilarious. I went to maybe 300 bar and bat mitzvahs in the ’80s. But it hurt. It was hurtful to know that Susie blew it in such a huge way. To then continue shooting the other scenes, it was difficult.

To make it doubly difficult, we had prosthetics on. Wow, that’s really hard. You feel like you have this mask on and you’re not sure of what’s working, what’s reading, and how much of your face is showing. A lot of Susie’s reactions are small pieces that happen in her face. We were both so concerned that you couldn’t see us or couldn’t feel us, or she couldn’t feel me. It was really hard to know what was working. That was what I was hyper-aware of and I talked through that with Dan Palladino that day, since he directed the episode. I wanted to be sure that you could read what I was intending. I still don’t know. I haven’t seen it. I think I’m afraid to watch it.

Then what was your intention in the scene?
Imagine you come into the kitchen and you catch your dog in the corner and the trash bag is pulled out of the trash can and everything is strewn across the floor. The dog will either have a tail between its legs or sometimes it barks. It will start to bark at you to get you to back out of the room. I think my intention was to really get the sense that her tail was between her legs and she knows what she did. But then, she immediately responds by going on the attack and barking to deal with what she’s done.

How did your prosthetics hinder your physicality? You didn’t look overly aged.
I’m just old, I guess. I just aged during season five. No, we had pieces that were on the jowls and neck and forehead. I don’t think I had eye-bag stuff at that time, but there were pieces everywhere else. I think Rachel was offended at one point. There’s a moment where someone on set was like, “God, so how come you don’t have any prosthetics?” And she was like, “No, I do.” Everyone just assumed she’d had a lack of sleep the night before.

This is the first time Susie called Midge a friend to her face, and they’ve known each other for nearly 30 years at that point. What do you think is unspoken here? Does Susie genuinely consider her to be, say, her best friend, but would never verbalize such a thing unless under duress?
I think that Midge and Susie, or “Smidge” as we like to refer to ourselves, is the central kind of romance of this show. It’s what the show’s really about. It’s a love story between these two people. And that’s always there. Probably for both of them, they’re the greatest love of each other’s lives. To have it all hanging on the wire there and to know that she betrayed this person — this is basically Susie cheating on her. It’s a betrayal. She never in a million years wanted to hurt Midge or have her find out she had to do any of this scrambling to make anything work, but here they are. She’s desperate to not lose this person. She’s never had anyone that close before.

Is there a larger idea of their argument?
It’s just that. This is the equivalent of someone cheating, having strayed outside, not being honest. Susie was supposed to be the one person that was not going to betray her. And here we are.

People say things in arguments that they wind up regretting, as we see with Midge’s video message a few years later. But there’s one thing she said to Susie that gave me pause: She succeeded in spite of her. Is there any truth to that?
I think there is some truth to that. At many turns, Susie didn’t know what the hell she was doing and made many, many mistakes. But I also think it was the most hurtful thing Midge could say at that point. She also knows Susie may have made ten mistakes, but there were 200 correct calls. If Susie hadn’t pulled her out of jail that day and told her, “You belong on that stage,” none of this would’ve happened, period. I don’t think Midge would’ve ever found her way to a stage again. So it was in the heat of the moment and angry, but there’s still some truth to it.

But I also think of the many mistakes Midge made, or many of the insane ideas she had throughout the journey, like, “I don’t want to be an opener anymore, I just want to headline. I don’t want to do this.” She blew up the Shy Baldwin thing. Many of those missteps were things that ended up giving Susie pause and having her think, “Maybe she’s right, maybe I do need to think bigger. Maybe I’m just trying to get her a little tiny job to get dollars instead of creating a career and managing a career.” In some ways those massive mistakes Midge made led Susie to be a better manager and realize there was a bigger picture. So I don’t think Midge wholly meant that. That was meant to stab and to hurt, and it did.

Where does Susie stand with the mob? Was the fight with Midge an intervention of sorts?
Like many of the participants in these games, if you want to call them as they age, the rules change. People aren’t beholden to people in the same way and it becomes water under the bridge. They become “associates” and part of the business. I don’t think Susie was under anyone’s thumb in the mob anymore, but I think they’re now people that show up to each other’s kids’ weddings and graduations and are part of a larger “family” in some way.

Do you like to think Susie accepted Midge’s invitation to get together?
Oh, absolutely. That was really an experience to shoot, the way I was sitting up on the dais and watching the video playback. When we were filming that scene, Rachel showed up that day and climbed up onto a ladder in her street clothes. She chose to come in. She was perched 10 feet or so above sitting on top of a work ladder, so I would have an eyeline and something to look at. When she gave that speech, it really snuck up on both of us how completely moved I got. I had a really hard time looking at her, knowing the show was barreling towards its end. It was our final season. All of those moments hit so much harder. Playing through that scene and standing up and walking outside, it was the hope and feeling — both of myself and the character — that I’ll talk to Midge again and Alex will keep in touch with Rachel. It was very real. So, yes, I think Susie accepted.

Susie’s face in that video scene was very much, “How the hell was I estranged from the most important person in my life for five years?”
Yeah, I think nothing else mattered. Susie is being honored at this grandiose celebration and everyone keeps saying, “She’s the greatest manager ever.” But when Midge showed up, even if it was just in that video, none of it mattered once Susie realized she still could have her in her life.

We learn through various flash-forwards that Midge lives a colorful romantic life once she becomes a star. Does Susie also dabble in exciting personal relations?
I don’t think Susie ever loved again. Hedy broke her heart and Midge was the closest thing she ever got again to a relationship. Yeah, maybe she had lots of sex, but who knows? I’m sure she was able to find pleasure when she needed it, when and where, but I don’t think she ever dared to try to have a relationship again. She was burned and never wanted to touch the stove.

Have you come close to having a “triple crown” moment in your own career?
I feel like if everything were to end after Maisel, I could say, I really fucking did it. I don’t know if I’d say triple crown, but maybe there were three beautiful gemstones on a single crown. I have been a part of Family Guy for over 20 years. Being able to write, produce, and be a part of something that was a huge phenomenon and funny and fun. Then I worked on Getting On, which was the first on-camera, three-dimensional, fully realized and challenging character I ever got to play. And then Susie Myerson on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I have no business ever complaining about anything. I’ve been so lucky. They’re such interesting and totally different things that have been warmly received by critics and viewers. Who can ask for anything more than that? It’s like this apex. It’s the culmination and you can’t believe it’s happening. Ain’t I lucky?

Alex Borstein Became Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Own Godfather